Proof That Education Innovation Works

Posted on October 30, 2012

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In 10 Short Years, Olin College Has Grown into One Of the Most Prestigious Engineering Schools in the Country Because They Did What Others Won’t—Made Good On a Promise to Innovate Learning

I’ve been making frequent trips to Massachusetts this summer and fall, and during each visit I’ve met with some of the most innovative and successful educators in the state. It would be hard to say what the most impressive thing I’ve seen thus far is, because it’s all been impressive, but I can definitely tell you what’s left the greatest impression on me. That would be my visit to Franklin W. Olin College, a small engineering school in Needham, adjacent to Babson college campus.

Olin College is young and small, established in 1997 with about 350 students, but it’s already grown into one the most prestigious engineering colleges in the country. In 2007, Newsweek called it one of “America’s 25 new Ivies.” As of 2012, it’s ranked by US News and World Report as the sixth best undergraduate engineering program where no doctorate is offered—easily the youngest school in the top ten (most of the others were founded in the 1800s).

How has a 15-year-old school already grown to be mentioned in the same breath as West Point and MIT? Like anything else, it’s been mostly about results. According to what I was told during my visit, nearly 80% of Olin College graduates are hired by Google.

And how has Olin produced results? By putting their money where their mouth is.

Like many colleges, Olin realized a few years ago that the traditional university model of learning is outdated—medieval, to be exact—and ill suited to prepare students for the realities of the 21st century job market. Unlike most colleges, though, Olin responded by turning the traditional learning model on its head. In 2002, when the rest of the country had just started talking about things liked blended learning and the flipped classroom, Olin went out and walked the walk. The school went totally project based in each course and in each program. Faculty became facilitators and students learners, and the classroom became a collaborative place where students gave input into their own learning.

I had the opportunity to meet with Olin College President Richard K. Miller, who I hit it off with philosophically right away. He showed me around, and talked me about his commitment to creating a practical, innovative learning environment. Because of that commitment, schools all over the country with names you’d recognize visit Olin on a regular basis to figure out how they’re doing what they’re doing and having so much success preparing students for market.

While I was there, I sat through an education course for engineers. After class, I talked to some of the students, and I have to be honest, I was totally shocked by the level of dialogue we had. It was like talking to students at an education reform college, not an engineering college, though in a way, Olin is an education reform college. At least, it instills the spirit of reform in its students.

Keep your eye on schools like Olin College going into the future. There’s a reason that Olin has shot up like a bottle rocket in just a decade. Rather than just talking about a classroom to match the 21st century, Olin is actively creating it. No tinkering here and there and kicking the can down the road. Olin is actively engaged.

THIS IS WHAT WE NEED TO BE DOING EVERYWHERE. Universities and K-12 need to look to schools like Olin and follow suit. Schools all over the country, including the one down the street, will look a lot like Olin within the next decade or two. My fear is for the number of students we’re going to lose or cheat out of the education they deserve before that happens. The future needs to begin NOW.

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